Lots of undergraduate students struggle with the idea of The Culture Industry. For many students these days the Frankfurt School’s theory has lost its relevance. Possibly, during the build up to the First and Second World War, when the Power Elites used mass media much more as a propaganda tool to instigate world wars, the notion of the culture industry as a critique of may have been liberating to a few. These days Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity and theory of the Enlightenment as mass deception is just out of date, elitist and rather depressing to read. It depicts humans as zombie-like, morons who are systematically oppressed by a massive social mechanism; an “Iron Cage” as Weber called it, or a “unicity” as Lyotard termed it; “bio-power” to Foucault. Subsequently, The Culture Industry theory lacks agency to such an extent it reads somewhat like the contemporary conspiracy theory. We humans possess agency, the idea of The Culture Industry is too structurally-deterministic.
But the students I have spoken to during supervisions generally empathise with the idea of the culture industry; there seems to be “something there”. They are not entirely sure what, but the ideas hold to an extent. But their refusal to accept these out-of-date arguments seems to rest on the liberation that large cities, the Internet or communication technologies delivers; we live in a new world now, one of communication, knowledge sharing, imagined communities, hope and change.
I entirely sympathise with their opinions. I studied Media and Culture for my undergraduate and then Social and Cultural Theory for my masters. I tended to reject totalitarian theories of social structure for more nuanced theories of social power dynamics. My opinion has been changed after studying industrial agriculture and industrial food production systems.
The vast majority of the students tend to focus on the overwhelming complexities of cultures, sub-cultures, resistance groups and so on. They largely reject the notion of monoculture, global-culture or mass-culture. The content of their research is generally content analysis: the culture we consume on television or through fashion magazines. Focusing on the immaterial aspects of culture (ideas, language, semantics, fashions, trends, ideologies, etc.) and how they merge, influence, permeate, hybridise or intertwine. This is all fine, great indeed, but does it really constitute an adequate or even holistic understanding of culture?
The problem that I find, and I have been guilty of this in the past, is there is very little emphasis on the material or physical tools, machines, automobiles, transportation networks, communication networks (telegraph poles, fiber optic cables, wireless routers, servers, etc.) that deliver the media content or cultural content to us. We are too fixated on the celebrities, fashion models, personas or branding to accept the television sets, satellite networks or mobile handsets that deliver us the imagery as cultural artifacts. “Culture” or the cultural forms that are often analysed are songs, literature, artworks, poems, fashion items, hairstyles, etc. rather than chemistry, physics, technologies, mechanisms, wood, plastics, metals, and so on that mediate or enable this cultural content. In Marxist terms, the emphasis is generally on the culture or systems of ideas, or ideologies of a societies rather than the material, economic “base-structure”, which is by-and-large massively overlooked. We are only seeing one side of the coin.
Samsara reemphasizes the point about modernity, the Enlightenment and mass culture that it is so easy to overlook or take for granted in our everyday lives. What gives us modern people or “post-modern” and “post-industrial” people this sense of freedom, autonomy, liberty, independence or agencies are the material, objects or things of culture that surround us; such as underground sewage systems, taps, sinks and plumbing, radiators, light bulbs, cars, trains, busses, washing machines, lawn mowers, computers and mobile phones etc. With all of these cultural artifacts in place, we have less physical work to do in our everyday lives. Post-modern people don’t have to walk to get water, wash dishes and cutlery, prepare meat and cook with our bare hands, move geographic locations to communicate with other people, and so on.
Different machines or specialist sectors of society do much of our “life work” for us that we no longer recognise these social systems or material objects as relevant to our lives. We look back at the metanarratives of history as constructed events and the idea of Truth as a falsehood or mythology. We do not consider that the chemicals we put in our hair or in our mouths everyday, or the perfume or cologne we spray on our bodies, or the chemical preservatives in our food or milk as the end products of thousands of years of scientific endeavor. Science has always been socially constructed, as too is the truth that it has aimed for. The truth is scientific discovery continues on, as to do the rational and systematic cultures it encourages, and we are “privileged” enough to benefit from thousands of years of backlogged scientific disputes, processes and knowledges.
What gives many of us postmodern people the right to argue that we have agencies or that we are free-people, are the material, industrial, mechanised, and now computer automated processes that take place beyond our local horizons. It will always fright, shock and disgust us to see chicks being liquidized, cows being slaughtered or pigs being caged in pens for their entire lives, because the advanced division of labour or specialization of work roles in our contemporary society has become so advanced that we have become preoccupied by the end products; what appears on the shelves or on our screens; the Phantasmagoria; the social spectacle. We never see the cotton fields where the materials are grown to make the clothes we wear; we rarely visit the sewage works where our bodily wastes are disposed of or recycled; certainly many of us would be put off eating processed meat if we were to see the materials used to compose these “crafted” foods.
We can celebrate the pluralism and diversity of our postmodern and multicultural societies and much as we like, however, at another level of postmodern societies we neglect that there are very standardised, uniform and systematic processes in place that work twenty-four hours around the clock to deliver us with the food we consume and convert into energy, the materials that construct our city landscapes, the clothes that we use to keep us warm or attract attention. Samsara reminds us that The Enlightenment movement is as strong as ever, and The Culture Industry (singular) is still in tact, and that we also need to maintain some level of critical awareness of these industrial processes that give us this sense of entitlement to liberty and autonomy. We would be deceived to think otherwise.
More importantly, as we watch chickens being systematically herded up by machines; mono-crops being grown on “auto-farms”, production lines of workers packaging the food we will eventually eat, we should also remember how people are also systematically herded, processed, commoditised, packaged and put into cubicles. “The World Factory” a group of nine Chinese sociologists called it in an open letter about labour exploitation and worker suicides. That is the challenge if we are to understand modernity fully. And, any right-minded and critically engaged student will react against these claims. Arguing for complexity, diversity, choices, possibilities, changes and potentials to confirm their sense of agency, to confirm their own sense of power, control and self.
Maybe its too depressing to research these particular dimensions of postmodern life? The Culture Industry is depressing; Samsara is a depressing film to watch. While medics have to deal with cancer victims, firefighters have to pull mangled bodies from wreckages, or Chinese workers have to package meat on conveyor belts; why should we consider that sociology or culture studies (the humanities) should neglect the more depressing flip side of postmodern lifestyles?